No one celebrates like Punjabi women. I am convinced of it. The beautiful, talented, gorgeous,
spirit filled women of Ottawa’s Punjabi Gidda group swept me off my feet as we gathered to
sing, dance and celebrate the life and legacy of Indo-Hungarian painter, Amrita Sher-Gil. The
event took place on Saturday, April 20 at the Alma Duncan Salon of the Ottawa Art Gallery.
To say that the women emerged like birds of paradise in the splendour and colours of Punjab
would still be an understatement. The glorious women – Amarjit, Anna, AJ, Masha, Nilambri,
Amarjeet – led by singer, dholki player and dancer par excellence, Primal Singh, transformed
the blank white canvas of the Salon into a beautifully decorated Punjabi home in the blink of an
Traditional tapestries, embroideries, cushions, rugs and their own fine garb created a riot of
colour that lit up the large otherwise sterile and white room. With Sher-Gil’s paintings
projected on a giant screen behind them, they seemed to bring to life a world Sher-Gil only
The visual richness was just an enticement to the exuberant performance of songs and dances
that were to follow. The group sang a brilliant medley of Punjabi favourites full of good natured
teasing, soulful narratives and a longing for home. The singing and dancing was interspersed
with interviews of some elder women from the community who shared their stories of travel
from Punjab to Canada and read from their own poetry. These sensitive conversations led by
Paramjit gave us a moment to pause and think about what home really means.
But what do all these women of different ages and experience have to do with the often
sombre, sometimes lonely paintings of Sher-Gil? I think Sher-Gil loved the Punjab and was
greatly taken with the women of rural Punjab, but also by tribal women, hill women and people
deeply connected to their own environment. Women of all ages populate her paintings…
elderly women, young women, brides, mothers and daughters, workers, aristocrats. Her
paintings seem to be embedded with narratives of the hidden lives of her subjects.
The celebration of women’s dancing, traditional women’s songs and poetry brought to life the
world that many of Sher-Gil’s subjects would have inhabited. We celebrated the power,
emotional resonance and camaraderie that women can create and share together. I feel certain
that these things were important Sher-Gil and she would have smiled broadly at our
mischievous yet sensual performance.